Honoring a Great Baseball Player and City
St. Louis is a special baseball city. I remember the sportscaster Bob Costas saying that Cardinal fans were the most knowledgeable baseball fans in America. Tony La Russa, manager of the Cardinals for sixteen seasons, once remarked that people in St. Louis would stop him on the street to suggest different batting lineups.
Although I grew up a Braves fan, I became more interested in the Cardinals after my sister, a big baseball fan, moved to St. Louis. Two or three times a season, I’d drive over to St. Louis and go to a game with her and my brother-in-law.
I remember one game in the 2001 season vividly. It was a day game, one of those picture-perfect sunny days for baseball. I think the Mets were the opponents, but my memory is clearer on what a Cardinal rookie, Albert Pujols, accomplished that day. He seemed bigger in size than the other players, and he stood so calmly in the batter’s box. Pujols went three for four that day, with his one out being a long fly ball hauled in on the warning track. He hit every kind of pitch thrown to him that day, and I thought, “Now here is someone to watch.”
Now, twenty-one seasons later, Albert Pujols is back in a Cardinals uniform, standing just as calmly in the batter’s box, and hitting homers at a record pace. This is Pujol’s final season, though I expect that he’ll feel pressure, given how he’s hitting the ball, to return for another. Yes, he’s older, heavier, balding, and probably a few steps slower, but oh, can he still hit.
In a recent game against the Braves, Pujols lined out to the shortstop late in the game. No big deal, right? With the new ways that aspects of the game can now be analyzed, the TV commentator shared that though Pujols made an out on that play, the speed of the ball off his bat was 104 mph, faster than any other ball hit that game. When I told my wife, she said, “I bet that hurt the shortstop’s hand.”
One of my sister’s great sacrifices was offering me her ticket for opening day, 2006, the first game in the new Busch stadium. The place was packed, and the pre-game ceremony was one for the ages. Gates in the right field opened, and the Budweiser Clydesdales led a procession of Cardinal greats of the past—Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, and Bob Gibson among others—onto the field. Those of us in the stands went wild. What we were looking at was a live version of the baseball cards of our youth.
Following the greats of the past onto the field were the Cardinal players for that season, stars like Pujols, riding on the backs of convertibles. Perhaps Pujols wondered that day, just his sixth season in the majors, if he’d become one of those Cardinals who’d never be forgotten. If he did, he would have been right. Oh, by the way, he hit a home run that day.
The stands in St. Louis are packed again, as Pujols seeks to hit 700 home runs before he retires. The fans in St. Louis all stand when he comes to the plate, as one might stand in the presence of royalty.
Albert Pujols is a beautiful baseball player, playing in a city that, perhaps more than any other, understands and appreciates the sport. Pujols deserves to retire as a Cardinal, and the great baseball city of St. Louis deserves a great player like Pujols.
Pujols-St. Louis. A marriage made in baseball heaven.